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It’s been known for centuries that developing skills in one area can result in corresponding gains in another area. In older art schools and ateliers, this idea was practiced by a curriculum of drawing, painting, and sculpture. Over time student skills usually improve. But did you ever stop to think: why?

A great deal of the gains in art training relies on what cognitive neuroscientists now understand as “pattern recognition.” It is a process where you recognize that one thing matches the pattern of another thing. Shape A looks like shape B. Skills develop with practice as students get better at recognizing colors, matching and extracting shapes, and translating them into a painting.

The question that arises is “what do we understand today about pattern recognition that can make us better artists?” Do we know things about the brain that Leonardo DaVinci did not know 500 years ago? 


In the attached image of John Singer Sargent’s MADAME X, you can see Sargent’s completed painting and one of the many drawings he did studying the profile of Virginie Gautreau. For Sargent, matching the pattern, getting the shape of that nose exactly right, was absolutely crucial. In the student copy, you can see an attempt to match the pattern, but it fails in many small inaccuracies. 

This is the essential problem for painting. You don’t have to extract every last detail for us, but if you want us to believe in your painting you must give us a pattern we recognize, either exactly (realism) — or with interpretive flair.

What modern training ideas can improve pattern recognition skills? 

Unsurprisingly, the big problem is that humans get bored quickly and our brains want to find the easiest, laziest way to finish any job. This saves energy and is a generally understood as a survival adaptation. But the downside is we tend to follow the “most familiar” path, and when that happens people do not make the fresh associations that encourage pattern recognition as a key skill. If you drive home via the same route every day, after awhile your brain barely sees what’s around you. You go on “autopilot” and when that happens conscious thought, aka "the awakened mind" stops.

What art practices can build pattern recognition as a skill?

1. Change your tools. Whatever art tool and method makes you most comfortable, change it up and discover a corresponding pattern in your new tool (pastels) that relates to the old tool (ballpoint.) Changing your tools immediately makes you “see different.”

2. Change your methods and materials. Forces a reset and your brain has to find new organizing patterns. If you have been following the same A-B-C-D painting method for five years, you may have gotten proficient, but it’s a limitation as well. Ingrained habits in art can manifest as personal style, but if your art doesn’t meet your expectations try changing your habits. 

3. Change your teacher. And when you do, look for what patterns remain effective from the old teacher. Almost any teacher, what they are really passing on to you are their habits (good and bad) but they can’t pass on to you their pattern recognition abilities because that is an intangible mental skill.

4. Get to a higher level. Most of us make stuff in our own heads or in small communities of makers. But if all your thinking is in your classroom or on your desk it is hard to see the patterns the way you can from 20,000 feet up. Does everybody’s art you know look the same? Step way back and it’s easier to see the overall pattern, whether it’s zombie formalism or low-brow kitsch.

5. Employ crossover technology. Use a camera. A mirror. Use your phone and convert the image to black-and-white. Use a computer and photoshop to reduce to 4 colors and still recognize the essential pattern. Use any damn software to see it fresh, with patterns exposed. 

6. Engage in creative pattern matching activities. A central one is “apophenia” or patternicity. This can be exercised looking at almost any object (clouds, leaves, sand, broken concrete, landscapes, etc.) and “seeing” real or imaginary patterns in the object. The brain will try to find patterns even if they are not really there, which is why a puffy cloud can remind us of a kitten or a submarine.

What else might help?

1. Put in 10,000 hours of practice looking for patterns, widely discussed as Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, though this idea has been questioned and more efficient shortcuts may exist.
2. Study nature, art, or math; secondarily music or dance. All these activities are about patterns and extracting them. 
3. Spend a few hours a week engaged in a mentally challenging pattern-matching activity like organizing photos or art, jigsaw puzzles, 3D puzzles, collecting identical sea shells, etc.

What is actually being developed when you build pattern-matching skills?

Perceptual Skills including:
• Processing Speed: how quickly you can process visual information and/or recognize colors and shapes.
• Spatial Awareness: Your awareness of your own body in relation, this can affect sight-size, perspective, etc.
• Visual Integration: connecting what you see to the motor skills to express them, i.e. if you see a tennis ball, do you have the motor skills to draw a circle to reproduce it?
• Visual Perception: This group of skills includes visual discrimination (determining likeness), spatial relations (determining differences), form constancy (determining sameness even when changed in size or orientation), visual memory, visual sequential memory, figure-ground (extracting valuable information from the background), and visual closure (ability to arrange the pieces together to form a whole).
• Working Memory: The ability to recall an exact shape or familiar form, i.e. can you draw the NIKE “swoosh” logo from memory? You have seen it at least 10,000 times. Give it a try.